By FRANCIS AYIEKO
Backers of Garden City describe it as East Africa’s largest retail and leisure mall, and home to Nairobi’s first integrated shopping, living and working community.
That is what they envisage. After breaking ground in July, the Sh21 billion development on Thika Superhighway seems to be well on course to meet the set targets. Already, columns — of what is apparently the mall being built at one corner of the 32-acre plot — are up, while earthmovers and bulldozers are busy at work all day, every day.
Some 200 metres down on the other side of Thika Superhighway is the newly completed Mountain Mall, which though not as big as Garden City, is equally strategically located.
And on the same road, about 400 metres North of Garden City, is Thika Road Mall, which has been in operation since early this year. Call it mall mania, but Nairobi is experiencing a rapid increase in the number of shopping malls, in what The Washington Times calls a “sign of Kenya’s rising prosperity”. It is estimated that about six new malls are under construction in Nairobi.
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But in the wake of recent terror attack at the Westgate mall in Nairobi, questions are being raised about the security of shopping malls. Such concerns are even more pressing considering that the mall is no longer just about shopping, but acts more as a social hangout and a reflection of our changing lifestyle, thanks to a growing middle-class.
From a purely real estate standpoint, a more pertinent question is: Do we, as a country, have property management skills commensurate with the mushrooming of malls?
Unlike a commercial or residential development, a retail property (mall) demands more from a property manager. This is because other than the tenants, retail property management must also have in mind the shoppers who visit the establishment and whose happiness and satisfaction are key to the facility’s survival.
Managing a mall, therefore, carries with it more responsibility than the management of any other form of property. Think, for instance, of the tenant mix required for a mall. Experts say a healthy mix of tenants demands planning right from the design stage.
You need to know beforehand who your anchor tenants would be. You also need to know how various shops would be arranged so that they complement each other, and not bring an unhealthy competition within the mall.
The Westgate terror attack has opened a totally new front for property managers when it comes to ensuring adequate security and safety of shoppers in a mall.
It has revealed that it is not enough to have so many security guards manning entrances and exits in a mall with metal detectors in hand. It has also brought to the fore the question of tenant screening given allegations that the terrorists could have been tenants at the mall. One question we need to ask ourselves is: Do Kenyan real estate firms measure up to the new challenges brought about by the mall phenomenon?
Truth be told, most real estate firms in the country do not have the capacity to handle the onerous task of managing a mall. Most property agencies have lean workforce, mostly trained to manage residential and middle-level commercial property. Experts have rightly pointed out that managing a mall requires high property management skills that can match world-class standards since most mall patrons are widely-travelled people.
We now know that Westgate, for instance, was a common hangout for the who-is-who in our society, including diplomats. That perhaps explains why most major malls in Nairobi are managed by the few global real estate firms in the country like Knight Frank.